Arguing the World original

Just before the holidays, Bernard-Henri Lévy, france's most influential intellectual, contacted the Prospect offering to write an essay on the future of neoconservatism. Aware that his views on the matter were not wholly consonant with ours, he also suggested that he'd be open to a “spirited dialogue” on such questions as: Have the neoconservatives accomplished anything positive? Have they advanced any notions from which liberalism and the left could learn? What of the effort to spread global democracy? What's the legacy of the Iraq War? How to deal, in the war's aftermath, with totalitarian regimes?

We knew just the fellow to engage him. Anatol Lieven is British by birth and spent most of his career as a journalist in South Asia and the former Soviet Union. A fellow at the New America Foundation, he has lived in the United States for five years and has become one of neoconservatism's harshest intellectual critics.

On a Saturday in mid-January, BHL and Lieven conducted the following exchange in real time via e- mail (Lévy's last entry came a short while later). It is a fascinating discussion of the great questions about America and the world with which liberals must grapple as we inch toward the post-Bush era. These pages feature a condensed version of their exchange. We strongly urge you to read the full, 10,000-word dialogue at

* * *
Anatol Lieven: Dr. Lévy, we agree on many things about America and the world. However, to judge by your latest book, we disagree quite strongly on the subject of the neoconservative movement, its historical meaning, and above all its moral quality. …

The success of the neoconservatives lay not in their originality, but, on the contrary, in the fact that they took deep and ancient strains in the American national tradition and then used particular events to give these strains a radical twist. The first of these is the old American belief, rooted both in the Protestant tradition and in American civic nationalism, in America's right and duty to spread its democratic model to the rest of the world (the “American Nationalist Thesis”). The second, antithetical, strain is a strong degree in many American quarters of hatred, contempt, and fear directed at the rest of the world -- the “paranoid style” of American populist nationalism analyzed by Richard Hofstadter and his intellectual descendants.

Another vital element is the existential needs of the military-ndustrial and academic-ureaucratic security structures that grew up during the Cold War and were orphaned and endangered by the end of that struggle. Finally, there is the passionate defense of Israel. This is a legitimate and praiseworthy motive in itself. Tragically, however, a belief that this means backing the Israelis unconditionally in their confrontation with the Palestinians inevitably points toward a wider confrontation with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The historical conjunctures the neoconservatives exploited so brilliantly were the end of the Cold War and, of course, September 11. The end of the Cold War deprived the American establishment of its only real intellectual paradigm for understanding the world and the conduct of U.S. world policy. The collapse of Communism appeared to leave free-market liberal capitalism as the only global model for progress; and most dangerously, the collapse of the Soviet superpower appeared to make the United States practically omnipotent on the planet, free to do anything if only it possessed the “will” to do so. ... As Bush's recent speeches make clear, the messianic rhetoric of spreading “democracy” and “freedom” is more than ever the core of the administration's “strategy” in the Muslim world. It is highly doubtful that this really represents the beliefs of Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, or even Condoleezza Rice, in a way that it really did represent the core beliefs of Paul Wolfowitz.

Rather, the administration is emphasizing democratization because it doesn't have anything else to do or say. It cannot adopt a sensible diplomatic strategy toward a solution of the Arab -- Israeli conflict, or toward détente with key regional players like Iran. And with Iraq crippling the U.S. budget, it is impossible to ask Congress for the kind of economic aid for Muslim countries that would give the long-term construction of democracy there a real chance.

The problem with emphasizing democratization in this way is that it is radically incompatible with the actual policies of the Bush administration in the war on terror, as fully encouraged and supported by the neoconservatives. This contradiction between ideals and realpolitik was always there in U.S. policy. The neoconservatives and the Bush administration, however, have raised this contradiction to surreal, virtually Orwellian heights. They believe in spreading human rights and the rule of law? So they kidnap suspected terrorists and have them tortured in illegal U.S. prisons and in those of Muslim dictatorships whose human-rights records they publicly profess to despise. They want to bring democracy to the Muslim world? So they act with brazen contempt for the opinions of the vast majority of ordinary Muslims in democracies like Turkey and Indonesia.
The Bush administration and the neoconservatives believe in free elections? So every time this seems likely to bring victory for Islamist forces, they veer back to support for dictatorship. They respect ordinary Iraqis and believe they are ready for democracy? They respect them so much that they try to foist Ahmed Chalabi on them as a U.S.-backed dictator, and they share the general approach of the U.S. military, which respects them so much that it doesn't bother to count how many of them it accidentally kills.
This is not idealism, but a sick joke. … It bears the same relationship to real democratic thinking as Soviet Communism did to the original ideals of Marxism.

* * *
Bernard -- Henri Lévy: You put me in a difficult spot already. Yes, yes, you put me in a difficult spot. Because I really did not feel like starting this conversation by making myself look like an advocate for Bush and the neoconservatives.

You read my book, right? You read the portrait I make of this poor Bush as a child, à la Georges Bernanos, overwhelmed by what is happening to him, frightened by the world and trying to frighten it back?

You read my chapter entitled “The Revenge of the Little Man,” as well as the many chapters where I express my nostalgia for the true great America, that of John Kennedy, that of Bill Clinton even, that in which people like John Kerry or Barack Obama could be the continuators?

It has not escaped you either, I imagine, that I have been from the beginning against this damned war in Iraq, whose main effect has been, for the moment, to increase the number of terrorists in the area and to intensify this war of civilizations in which fundamentalist Muslims and Samuel Huntington are equally enthusiastic advocates? ...
In short, they are not my friends.

But at the same time, there are things in what you write that I cannot let slide, either. No matter how much one doesn't like this poor Chalabi, for instance, and the ridiculous attempt to put him in the saddle in Baghdad, I do not believe that one can present him as a “U.S.-backed dictator” whom they tried hard to impose in office by gunfire.

No matter what one thinks of the “general approach of the U.S. military,” no matter what one thinks of an event like Abu Ghraib, I do not believe that one can seriously claim that the main responsibility for the deaths of Iraqis today lies on us, and that one can forget the suicide bombers, the booby -- trapped cars, the blind shootings; in short, Iraqi terrorism (Islamist or ex -- Baathist) and its incommensurable lack of consideration, of all things, for the life of civilian Muslims.

And then: No matter what one thinks of this idiotic war … it is just not honest to deny the positive effects it has also had; for example, the freedom of the press, the end of the dictatorship, free elections, and the fact that an increasing number of Iraqis are starting to enter this democratic culture you disparage. ...

History being what it is -- a complex cacophony, a concert of mixed voices and ambiguous meanings in which you are never, except in extreme cases, a total angel or a total devil -- I recognize that the neoconservatives have two or three real merits.

One merit: making politics with ideas. Or reintroducing, if you prefer, the old philosophical consideration of the “types of regimes” in conducting international politics. Say what you want, but between a real politician without scruples and a reader of Leo Strauss or Aristotle injecting moral considerations into the way he does politics, my heart leans towards the latter.

Another merit: to privilege, among these ideas, what involves promoting democratic principles and actually spreading Western universalism in Muslim countries. I am not saying that the program is respected. I don't deny that it is, at the very least, strange, when one says he is a democrat, to accept Guantanamo or the secret prisons of Central Europe. But one can't deny that it is a program. And between this right wing and the right wing of old times -- between people who, even awkwardly, even by committing mistakes or crimes, think that America's role is to work for worldwide democracy and those who, like Henry Kissinger in his time, considered that its role was to support and reinforce all the dictatorships of the planet -- I prefer the former; I prefer the America that defends the heirs of Ahmed Shah Massoud rather than the one that put Augusto Pinochet in power.

And a third merit: the fact of taking seriously the tragic dimension of contemporary history. Or, more precisely, of taking stock of this figure of modern tragedy that is the challenge addressed to all democrats -- and not only to those of America! -- by the Muslim radicals and sectarians. You talked about Iran. You said that there should be détente with Iran. Agreed. That's all I ask for. But I believe that first it is necessary to take into account the tragedy of the situation. And when I say tragic I mean a situation in which the entire Iranian establishment, including Akbar Hashemi -- Rafsanjani, that pleads for the resumption of [nuclear] tests -- and therefore for a line of a president who has stated his intention, or rather his dream, to wipe Israel from the map. To notice that this is an extreme danger, and that the democrats of the world are facing a challenge that, all things being equal, is no less frightening than the one formerly presented by Communists and Nazis, what do you want me to say? For now, all I can see are these neoconservatives.

I would like it a thousand times better if others would speak firmly with Iran.
I would like it if the other camp, that of humanistic America, were in more of a hurry to go back to the beloved topics of Michael Walzer, refusing the culture of excuses concerning the new terrorism. ...

* * *
AL:… I am fully aware that you are not a neoconservative and that you have opposed many of their policies including the Iraq War; and for this I praise you. However, both in your book and in your response to my first volley, you also made clear that on certain key points you both sympathize with neoconservative “ideals” and believe that their actual policies either stand a good chance of success, or have no viable alternative, or both.

You also appear to join the neoconservatives in one of their most willfully disastrous intellectual approaches (shared and even encouraged by certain figures who still think they are on the left), which is to muddle up the radically different and mutually hostile forces of al-Qaeda-style Sunni extremism, Shia conservatism (often infused with Iranian nationalism), and Baath-style radical Arab nationalism or fascism. This muddle has even less intellectual justification than the American establishment's previous muddling up of Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Latin American Communism, but may have even more appalling results.

You set up a radical opposition between neoconservative idealism and Kissingerian realpolitik. This is quite false. What you seem to have forgotten is that the neoconservatives initially broke with the liberal Democrats, and began their march toward the Republicans, in large part precisely because of their belief that the United States should continue to wage war in Vietnam by all necessary means, however ruthless.

What is more, when the Carter administration tried to make human rights and democracy the centerpiece of its international strategy, the neoconservatives were the first to denounce this as hopelessly naive and to insist that America continue to support the Shah of Iran against his population and a variety of bloodstained Central American military regimes against their “Communist” opponents. Idealism, anyone? How exactly was this different from Kissinger's belief that American vital interests, and the defense of Western democracy, often required support for anti-Communist dictatorships?
What the neoconservatives see as American vital interests will always trump their professed ideals. This makes them not idealists, but a species of revolutionary realists. However, like most revolutionaries, they are realists whose capacity for ruthlessness is considerably enhanced by their genuine belief that they are deeply moral and that “the winds of history are in their sails,” to use the old Communist phrase. This is a classically Jacobin mixture, and, as Robespierre himself came belatedly to recognize, “no one likes armed missionaries.” The French attempt back then to spread a mixture of revolutionary values and French empire across Europe led not to a triumph for liberalism or democracy, but a series of dreadful wars ending in the triumph of European reaction backed by a furious German, Russian, and British nationalist response to French conquest. People who sympathize with neoconservative ideas about changing the world by force while expanding American imperial power should watch out that this does not lead them, step after logical step, to Kissingerian or dare I say it even Napoleonic positions. ...

On Iran: Obviously all members of the Iranian establishment share certain positions, but to suggest an absolute identity of views between men like Rafsanjani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a travesty. If this were the case, then why has Ahmadinejad's election made such a difference? … Figures like Ahmadinejad must be opposed and weakened; but that can successfully be done only by not making blowhard speeches in the West and by dealing with other Iranians.

That, unfortunately, means dealing with unpleasant but pragmatic characters like Rafsanjani, and by offering them a choice between tough sanctions and real benefits in return for giving up their nuclear program. If the neoconservatives had encouraged the Bush administration to take this approach four years ago, instead of lumping Iran in the “axis of evil,” then as likely as not we would not have Ahmadinejad in power today. That is not just a realist but a realistic position. We have to put pressure on the Iranians, but in the end we either have to negotiate with them -- or fight them. Can we fight them, given the experience of Iraq? And if we do fight Iran, will it be the neoconservatives and their children who will do the fighting and dying? We know the answer to that one.

* * *
BHL: We obviously agree on colonialism and its alleged “civilizing” mission. … We also agree on Napoleon and even on Robespierre, these two terrible characters, these two stains on the history of my country: In my opinion, they always were the inventors of terror; two different terrors, agreed; but terror in both cases and, in a certain way, the origin of what today we call terrorism. I said this in France; here again, I will not say the opposite in the United States. ...

No. The disagreement is elsewhere. And, if I were to define it, I would say that it can be summarized into three points.

First, this business of Communism. … I was enough of a Marxist to understand the nuances, even the quarrels, and sometimes the deadly fights among these various types of Communism. But that did not prevent me from also understanding what brought them together. That did not prohibit me, like Andrei Sakharov and the dissidents, from also understanding the essence that they had in common and that, in fact, when the time came, made them implode and disappear en masse.

Then, the issue of Iran. I am not saying that there is an “absolute identity of views between men like Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad.” I am saying that there is an identity of views on a point that is essential, and that -- taking into account the anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and hatred of democracy in general that prevail within the establishment of Teheran -- it is not a negligible point. This point is the nuclear point. And, on this nuclear point, I think indeed that there is no true alternative within that establishment. So what does it all mean? Does it mean that I preach war against the regime? No, of course not. I do not preach war anymore than I preach compromise. And this is so because, between war and compromise, there is a third term, which I am amazed that you do not seem to consider: it is the support for the Iranian women, the young people, the intellectuals -- it is the support for this enormous proportion of the Iranian population that does not recognize itself in any of the official factions but identifies with democratic combat. That's it, yes. ...

Third, the issue of the two kinds of Islam. Of course, I know the differences between Shiism and Sunnism. … But no matter how radical the cleavage between Sunnis and Shiites, regardless of whether we insist on what opposes them or what sometimes succeeds to unite them, regardless of the depth of what opposes them to all Baath atheists, there is a second cleavage of which you do not seem to think, but which I have the weakness of believing is more essential, more radical, and, for the concrete men and women that populate this world of Islam, of much greater consequence. And this cleavage is the one between democrats and fundamentalists. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about a “war of civilizations”; when you adopt, as I try to do, the point of view of concrete nations and men, here is the only war of civilizations that holds -- here, in this political division, exclusively political, between these two versions of Islam, the most important clash of civilizations of our time. ...

I continue to believe in what we, along with Bernard Kouchner and some others, call the “duty to intervene.” I think, more than ever, that it was necessary to intervene in Bosnia. I regret, more than ever, that we did not support Massoud in Afghanistan. I estimated, and I still estimate, that we had, in Rwanda, the duty to intervene. … I continue to dream of an ambitious foreign policy that would help the simple men and women martyrized by their states in cases such as that of Iran or even, a few years ago, Iraq. And perhaps, in essence, it is the great reproach that I feel like making against the neoconservatives: that, with their bad war, their bad policies, their absurd democratic messianism, their errors of perspective and judgment, they have compromised, wasted, and perhaps even discredited this magnificent and necessary duty to intervene -- and have caused us, from this point of view, to take a gigantic step backward.

* * *
AL: I am delighted that our differences have narrowed to such an extent, and that our long -- term hopes are indeed very close. We do, however, continue to have rather different ideas on contemporary strategy. ...

This leads me back to differences in the Muslim world, which I must insist are both greater and more complex than you suggest. Take the case of Massoud, whom you mention. Like you, I too believe that we should have backed him against the Taliban before 9-11. But who did in fact back him, and indeed saved the last remnants of the anti -- Taliban opposition from being crushed, and America after 9-11 from facing infinitely greater problems in Afghanistan? Well, it was the Iranians (and Russians) -- and precious little thanks have they received for this from us.

But the complexity of his example goes even deeper. Massoud was himself, as you know, a radical Islamist, and his followers in Afghanistan today are deeply conservative and religious Muslims who impose on their women the same crushing oppressions and restrictions common in most of Afghan society. Massoud fought first Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and then the Taliban, not out of secular opposition to their views, but for two other reasons. The first was that they represented a form of foreign radical Islam -- Saudi -- based Wahabbism -- that he saw as alien to local tradition. Much more important, however, was the fact that these forces represented renewed Pashtun domination, which he and his Panjshiri Tajik people were determined to resist.

Furthermore, the rise of the Taliban among the Pashtuns owed a great deal to the horribly brutal record of Massoud's forces and the other mujahideen groups when they ruled Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Communists in 1992. Once again, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't have supported Massoud against the Taliban; but in doing so, we would have picked not a “representative of Western universalism” in Afghanistan, but only the lesser of two evils -- a thoroughly realist strategy, in other words.

And the same kind of melancholy choice faces us across much of the Muslim world, whether it is a case of preferring Rafsanjani to Ahmadinejad, the Assad regime to Syrian radical Islamist groups, or the Shia conservative populists in Iraq to the al-Qaeda-backed Sunni insurgency. If we fail to make these choices, then we will unite our enemies against us -- as Israeli actions have brought together Hamas, Hezbollah, and the radical elements of Fatah, and as the American invasion of Iraq has brought together al-Qaeda and the Baath.

When it comes to the very widespread Muslim hostility to Israel -- and by extension the United States -- we are never going to be able to abolish this, any more than we can abolish various national animosities elsewhere in the world. What we should aim to do is to reduce this from a central issue for many Muslims to a secondary one, and above all to limit the number of people who are prepared to put their hatred into action, rather than just grumbling about it. We will never get Pakistanis to like India, but we may be able to get them to stop attacking India. And in the case of Pakistan, it is of course deeply troubling that some 15 percent of the population support radical Islamist parties -- but what we should really be thinking about is how to prevent the remaining 85 percent from joining them. ...

* * *
BHL: I am not certain, dear Anatol Lieven, that our dissension is reduced as much as that. ...

On Massoud, I believe that you are mistaken. Of course, yes, there was an Islamist temptation of Massoud. Of course, in his youth, he was close to a movement that was similar to the Muslim Brotherhood. But only in his youth. After that, his evolution was very quick and led him to the antipodes. On the spiritual level, his intellectual guide is not Sayyid Qutb (whom he probably never read) but Abou -- Hamed Al -- Ghazzali (born in Iran in 1058; the Al -- Gazel of the Latin scholars, the theorist of an “asceticism” that inspired the “cogito” of Descartes and the author of the admirable Alchemy of Happiness, which was, to the end, Massoud's favorite book and whose spirituality had nothing to do with the ultra -- ritualistic pharisaism of the fundamentalists). And on the political level you can say what you want of the terrible years 1992 -- 1996, of the tortuous plays of alliances he agreed to carry out or even the tactical coming together with Dostum or, at the very end, with Hekmatyar -- you can say what you want about his political errors at the time (even though speaking about the “horribly brutal record of Massoud's forces” seems to me historically exaggerated): It is still true that his action also consisted of defending, in the capital bombarded by the Hezbollah, then the Taliban, the secular constitutional order of the old Afghan monarchy. The female anchors of the television news kept their jobs -- and without the veil. All women who were professors, directors of hospitals, civil servants, kept their positions. Whereas in the cities controlled by the Taliban, they were briskly cutting off the feet and fists of petty and serious offenders, Massoud suspended, for four years, in the zone he controlled, the application of the punishments envisaged by Sharia. And I am not talking about the following years, those of his refuge in Panchir, where he still never deviated on the question of women, from this simple line he was going to reaffirm; for example, by signing, in 2000, the charter of the feminist organization Negâr: “The tradition is what it is; one cannot force women to abandon their burqa any more than one can force them to wear it; but my sisters have never worn the veil; my five daughters are studying or will study; I am in favor of the absolute right of women to work, vote, even to be deputies or to govern.” … As far as “radical Islamist,” one cannot do better! …

I am very much afraid of what you call, concerning the Arab-Muslim world, your “melancholy choice.”

I absolutely reject the idea according to which, under the pretext that they were born there, human rights and principles of secularism and of parliamentary democracy would be ontologically and inevitably related to the soil of the Western culture.

I think, to put things brutally, that there is a true superiority of the way of thinking that recognizes a soul's right not to submit, a body's right not to be wounded, a society's right to be represented in forms and by mediations that break away from communitarian rules.

All the rest is differentialism. In other words, it is contempt disguised as respect -- or violence embellished with the signs of an untrue and suspect “love of others.”

* * *
AL: Before dealing with our main theme, which is universal values and how best to promote them, let me return briefly to Afghanistan and Iran. Concerning Massoud, I'm afraid that you may have suffered the fate of many of your compatriots, a certain tendency to be dazzled by his ability to speak French, as well as his great personal qualities of leadership and charm.

Unfortunately, however, his followers did not speak French when dealing with their own compatriots, and were often singularly lacking in charm. My statements about the ideology and behavior of his followers are based both on the clear historical record and on my own personal experience of Afghanistan. Not part of the historical record, but universally acknowledged in private by Western officials and soldiers in Afghanistan, is the fact that -- as you must surely be aware -- several of his chief former lieutenants and political heirs are leading figures in the Afghan heroin trade today.

Don't get me wrong. As already stated, I think we should have supported Massoud against the Taliban. I strongly backed the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban after 9-11, and I believe that the West has a clear duty to keep its forces in Afghanistan until that country is stabilized and developed, even if this takes decades (which it probably will). But if American soldiers have a duty to risk their lives in Afghanistan, then experts in the West have a duty to help present our governments with a realistic and accurate assessment of that country, and not with comforting fairy tales.

On Iran. … The question is how best to promote, in Iran and throughout the Muslim world, the universal values of democracy and human rights in which we both believe. As you said, these values are of Western origin (d'origine occidentale) but are no longer Western -- defined or restricted to the West. I certainly did not suggest that non -- Western peoples are incapable of democracy. India, South Korea, Japan, and other states are obvious examples to the contrary. …

My own view is, however, that the promotion of democracy and the promotion of our security interests are best pursued separately and at two levels. Unless we are prepared to fight war after war -- and Iraq has shown not just the folly but the impossibility of that -- then the latter requires the kind of pragmatic deals with existing regimes that I have described.

But that does not mean that we are abandoning our promotion of democracy any more than a whole set of pragmatic deals with the Soviet regime meant that we had abandoned the promotion of democracy in the Soviet bloc. For the fact is that by far the best promoter of democracy throughout the world is the power of our example. During the Cold War, we had to contain Soviet Communism by military means, and we had to appeal to the rebellious nationalism of its subject peoples. But what brought that system down in the end was that our system so very obviously worked much better than the Communist one: It was vastly freer, richer, less oppressive, more stable, more tolerant, and more just.

This means that we have to be careful that the local examples of democracy that we support are visibly better than their authoritarian neighbors. This is something that we have failed to do in much of Latin America in recent decades, resulting in a series of populist and semi -- authoritarian backlashes against corrupt, brutal, oligarch -- ruled pseudo -- democracies.

But above all, we must preserve our own democratic model as one that visibly defends freedom at home, guarantees basic economic security to the mass of its population, defends the weakest elements of society, and pursues peace, cooperation, and development abroad. If we do this, then in the end people all over the world will want to abandon their own failed systems and adopt ours, just as the Eastern bloc peoples did.

And this, in the end, is my most bitter accusation against the neoconservatives and the Bush administration, one in which I believe you may well wish to join: that by a whole set of actions at home and abroad, they have badly damaged the image of American democracy in the world. By doing so, they have also damaged the attractiveness of democracy in general, and strengthened the arguments of democracy's enemies. This has been their fundamental betrayal of the ideals of which they profess to be the archdefenders. For this, I believe, they will be cursed by posterity.

* * *
BHL: … In your last round there are three ideas, or three presuppositions, which seem to me to be quite problematic and which, I realize, condense fairly well, in fact, our recent differences of opinion.

1. To pursue at the same time, you say, meaning “separately and at two levels,” these two distinct objectives, which are “the promotion of democracy” and “the promotion of our security interests.” … I don't think that this works. In reality, [it's] either one or the other, and complacency with regard to “murderer” states always turns against their people. You cite the example of the former U.S.S.R. You say, to support your thesis: We succeeded well, at the time, in establishing a series of “pragmatic deals with the Soviet regime” without, however, abandoning “the promotion of democracy in the Soviet bloc.” That's just it! I don't see where you get that we continued, despite our “deals,” to occupy ourselves with promoting democracy in Eastern Europe. Because the reality of the time is, as you well know, that we abandoned the Soviet people like dogs and that we resigned ourselves, truly resigned ourselves, to their poor destiny. … That's how it happened yesterday. And that's how it will happen tomorrow.

2. Before promoting them abroad, begin to strengthen democratic principles at home. … You seem to say: “wait, before you consider exporting it, until your own democracy is in good order.” You act as if democracies had to be quite certain that the laboratory is impeccable before “pursu[ing] peace, cooperation, and development abroad” and especially before seeing enslaved peoples experience ecstasy in the face of the superiorities of the democratic systems.

It's a joke, I hope. Because democracy, being what it is, an interminable social and political regime of literally infinite perfection… [o]ne can wait a long time if waiting for it to be perfect. And, especially, I hope it is very clear, in your spirit as it is in mine, that, even in the most imperfect, the most underachieved, even the most egotistic, the least compassionate, the most “Bush -- ist” of democracies, the concern for the “weakest” and the will to defend “freedom at home” is already a billion times stronger than among the Sudanese, the Syrians, or the Chinese. And if they don't want to have it today, they don't want it at all, and that if their spirits don't evolve, they won't want more when we have perfected our own system even more. ...

3. And then, finally, I cannot accept your kind of democracy that should avoid denouncing, for example, the building of arsenals of weapons of mass destruction. Because this requirement, dear Anatol Lieven, is evidently part of the package. The renunciation, in Iran, of the will to wipe Israel off the map is an integral part of its democratic culture in formation. The recognition, by the Pakistanis, that reform of their secret services, which are corrupted by Islamism and by nuclear -- istic ideology, is the prerequisite for building (even a rough outline of) a serious state of law is an obligatory point of passage for the country where Daniel Pearl died, in order to rejoin the community of civilized nations. …

Let's consider for an instant the case of the Palestinians. You have two possible attitudes in response to the recent victory of Hamas. The attitude that, in effect, consists of saying: “It's already enough that they voted; we are not going to, in addition, ask them to adapt to our standards by objecting to, for example, the anti -- Semite folly of their most radical elements.” Or you have the attitude, which is mine, which says that by reasoning thus you mock the Palestinians, you take them for morons or subjects of no definitive law, and on top of it you accept, bordering Israel, the third point of a triangle of death whose other two points are Iran and Syria: If you reason like this, then you must immediately say to the people of the West Bank and Gaza, without waiting, that they have brought themselves to an impasse, that there is no democracy at all that is even thinkable on such a putrid basis and that they have to take responsibility by getting rid of, as soon as possible, these bad leaders, who are kind of like Nazis. ...

Democracy is the opposite of Nazism. That is what must be said without delay. You cannot be half democrat and half Nazi; this is the message that the international community, the intellectuals, and the people, must send out without delay. Will this slow down the process again? Maybe in the short term. But probably not in the long term. Because the moral code of truth is really the best ally of the democratic will.

Bernard -- Henri Lévy is the author of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocquevilleand Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, among other works. Anatol Lieven is the author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. His next book, Through Humility to Victory: Ethical Realism and the Great Capitalist Peace, co -- authored with John Hulsman, will be published this fall by Random House.